Mystery road: Navigating mystery and identity in art

Opinion

Writers like to pin things down. Understand what a work is saying or doing. But one Friday in June, I stood in front of Hilma af Klint’s No.7 Adulthood, a 1907 painting, part of a series called The Ten Largest. A swathe of lilac deepens the longer you look at it. Shapes bubble and bloom, morphing into each other. Trying to capture the experience in words is like trying to stop alchemy in motion or attempting to grab a fistful of air.

Af Klint, we know by now, was a Swedish mystic overlooked by the art world. She made this painting, a commission from her spirit guide, over the course of four days by laying her canvas flat on the floor of her Stockholm studio. Today, standing in front of No.7 Adulthood, these biographical particulars feel irrelevant; the artist’s life makes a great backstory, but it doesn’t solve the mystery of the work itself.

Af Klint, of course, isn’t the only artist whose work is animated by a sense of enigma. Our moment is characterised by cognitive overload, a crisis of too much data and too little meaning. There’s a part of us that craves more knowledge, more information. The pressure to narrate our lives on social media, for instance, has stoked our appetite for personal narratives.

Yet this relentless stimulation of modern living has also sparked a desire not to know more but to know less. We seek refuge in experiences that bring us wonder; encounters that exist outside the news-cycle, that can’t be quantified by an algorithm. As a result, we’ve become enamoured with art that can’t be explained away by an artist’s backstory. Art that we celebrate for its ability to transcend—rather than reflect—lived experience.

But I’m struck by the way that only certain artists enjoy the freedom that’s a consequence of this aesthetics of mystique.

Consider Donald Judd, whose gleaming, boxlike ‘objects’ were intended to reject any external reference. Or Agnes Martin, whose sublime, gridded paintings, awash in pale blue and dusk yellow, offer an optical riddle, a bit like trying to grasp a horizon. “I’m not a woman, I’m a doorknob, leading a quiet existence,” she once told an interviewer. Then there’s Mike Parr, whose 2019 performance Towards an Amazonian Black Square was an homage to Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square. This latter 1915 work, painted during a moment of historical chaos, famously evokes a void. It’s a gesture that rejects reality. Art, like this, is an antidote to an age of overshare. The greater its sense of enigma, the more power it has.

But if we’re drawn to art that’s mysterious—artists that present a route out of our current predicament— we’re also shaped by the opposite instinct. As movements such as Black Lives Matter expose racist legacies and the pandemic accelerates inequalities that disproportionately affect the vulnerable, people have turned to art for answers. We ask artists for truths that may run counter to powerful interests, too inconvenient to exist elsewhere.

This year’s edition of The National in Sydney rightfully highlighted artists that grapple with traumatic histories, including colonisation, immigration and indentured labour. At The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, We Change the World presented art that doubled as tools of social change from the likes of Lisa Reihana, David McDiarmid and Clinton Naina. Internationally, Deitch Projects in Los Angeles launched Shattered Glass, exclusively championing work by 40 artists of colour, and London played host to Every Woman Biennial, a freewheeling alternative to the all-woman show, one that embraces gendered expression of every kind.

Art has always been bound up with questions of social justice. Who gets to make work? Whose art is considered legitimate? Galleries, from artist- run spaces to major institutions, are increasingly presenting exhibitions that demystify forces like racism, sexism and privilege.

In a time of seismic change, it feels urgent to reveal the world rather than conceal it. It’s important to illuminate artists who, for too long, have been erased, appropriated, and underrepresented. But as the market demands more work by the historically marginalised, it can also demand the stories behind the art, which means more biography—and more trauma.

For artists outside the canon—those who, generally speaking, are not white, male and neurotypical— being visible, and being curated into exhibitions, usually means being legible.

In a late capitalist world, identity can become commodity. Biography is repackaged as marketing. Under these conditions, art by marginalised artists is too easily framed as an extension of an artist’s backstory rather than a source of mystery; an aesthetic achievement that transcends its makers’ life.

This is a common sentiment felt by many artists. “When I reflect on my career, it’s hard not to notice the ways interest and institutional support have increased as I’ve shared more of my traumatic experiences,” writes Vivek Shraya, a trans artist of colour, in a 2019 essay for Toronto’s Now magazine.

“It is wrenching to know that the occasion for the renewed interest in your work is the murders of black people and the subsequent ‘listening and learning’ of white people,” writes Ghanaian-American author Yaa Gyasi, in a 2021 The Guardian article. She goes on to lament the indignity of a world that reduces art by a woman of colour into a teachable moment. She adds: “What pleasure, what deepening, could there be in ‘reading’ like that?”

Édouard Glissant believed that mystery in art was a profound source of power, but the late Martinican poet and critic also understood how the colonial insistence on knowing and possessing could objectify marginalised artists. In his 1990 book, Poetics of Relation, he argues that people, regardless of their difference, should have the “right to opacity”. For Glissant, there was value in being untranslatable, mysterious, even misunderstood. “The opaque is not the obscure, though it is possible for it to be so and be accepted as such,” he writes. “It is that which cannot be reduced…”

Mystique can feel like a privilege reserved for those who don’t need to explain themselves. How do we work within extractive systems? How can an artist hold both their identity and their mystery? Could refusing to be reduced by these questions, like Agnes Martin, be a form of freedom, too?

Neha Kale